Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Leo Steinberg, 1920-2011

Tributes by Laurie Schneider Adams, David Carrier and others

Leo Steinberg speaking at the memorial tribute to Jeanne-Claude at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2010.  Photo: Phyllis Tuchman
Leo Steinberg speaking at the memorial tribute to Jeanne-Claude at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2010. Photo: Phyllis Tuchman

Leo Steinberg, revered as an art historian and critic of profound erudition, riveting style and audacious methodology, has died in New York, aged 90. He is remembered principally for two groundbreaking works, Other Criteria: Confrontations With Twentieth-Century Art (1972) and The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983).  His reputation was equal in the periods represented by these titles, and was carried as much by his charisma at the podium as by his sauve, persuasive printed prose.  In what became his typical gambit, in The Sexuality of Christ, Steinberg asked himself a strikingly obvious yet oddly overlooked question about Madonna and Child paintings: why the sexual organs of the Christ Child were ubiquitous in Renaissance paintings.  He found answers in period theology, but the question arose from actual looking rather than theory, reading or debate, recalling that this late starter in art history had first trained as an artist, at London’s empirically-focused Slade School.  In later studies of Michelangelo and Leonardo he developed an abiding fascination with ways in which the critical literature surrounding legendary artists would repeat interpretations that actually ran against the visual evidence.     He would offer what many took to be outlandish over-interpretations of the visual content and symbolism of familiar masterpieces like the Sistine ceiling and the Last Supper, but always backed up by close reading of the work that matched philological insights with passionately argued imaginative leaps.  Working in a half century in which criticism and scholarship were marked by extremes of close formal reading and theoretical speculation, Steinberg pioneered a highly personal idiom in which these extremes met on cordial terms.  DAVID COHEN

Leo Steinberg: The Courage of His Convictions

Born in Soviet Russia, Leo and his family left for Berlin and later moved to London.  At the age of sixteen, Leo studied art at the Slade School of Fine Art, and thus developed an artist’s eye for in-depth looking at imagery. After World War II, he and his family relocated once again, this time to Manhattan, where he studied philosophy and worked as a freelance author and translator.  In his thirties, he shifted his focus to art history, receiving his PhD from New York University in 1960 with a dissertation on the Italian Baroque architect Francesco Borromini.  Given his range of study, his command of several languages, and his experience as an art student and author, Leo Steinberg established a basis for his comprehensive, analytic, and, above all, humanist approach to the interdisciplinary field of art history.

book cover

He was a writer who insisted on perfection, an influential critic, and a lecturer who combined humor with erudition.  The drafts of his lectures indicated exactly where he should pause, cough, or adjust his glasses.  His books, essays and articles cover a wide range of topics from Renaissance and Baroque art to contemporary art.  He argued that more than the formalist approach was needed to understand works of art, and he was able to apply different methodological interpretations to imagery that resulted in profound, occasionally controversial, critical analyses of imagery and its relevance to culture and civilization.  But with the courage of his convictions, reinforced by decades of scholarly research combined with the proverbial “eye” of a great critic, even his most controversial works carry the weight of truth.  In this respect, Steinberg was like Sigmund Freud – he made people see what they would have preferred not to see, even though it was right before their eyes.

The work that best exemplifies this particular talent is, of course, Steinberg’s ground-breaking work, first published in 1983 and provocatively entitled The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion.  At the outset, Steinberg describes his three basic intentions in writing the book:

1. To “admit a long-suppressed matter of fact: that Renaissance art…. produced a large body of devotional imagery in which the genitalia of the Christ Child, or of the dead Christ, receive such demonstrative emphasis that one must recognize an ostentatio genitalium….. All of which has been tactfully overlooked for half a millennium….”

2. “to prove plausible theological grounds for the genital reference in the works under review…”,  notably in the many works where it is clear that the Madonna is unveiling or otherwise calling attention to her son’s genitals.

3. Steinberg’s “didactic” concern:  “At the risk of belaboring what is obvious, I must address myself to the many who still habitually mistake pictorial symbols in Renaissance art for descriptive naturalism.”  Taking the example of what he calls the “chin-chuck” motif, he cites the iconographic tradition dating to the royal art of ancient Egypt in which a child’s gesture of grasping his mother’s chin connotes “erotic communion.”  Transferring the motif to Christ, according to Steinberg, designates “Mary’s son as the Heavenly Bridegroom who, having chosen her for his mother, was choosing her for his eternal consort in Heaven” – as per Saint Augustine.  Needless to say, the Oedipal implications of this reading, confirmed as they are by scripture, are inescapable.  Intentionally avoiding all references to Freud, except in a single footnote (p.232, n.5, second edition), Steinberg confirms Freud and illustrates the fact that, whether one is talking about theology or psychology, human nature is what it is.  Freud attributed the Oedipus complex to human nature, using not theology, but rather Sophocles and years of clinical experience.  Nonetheless, Steinberg and Freud, being careful researchers, lucid thinkers, and essentially humanists, have come to comparable conclusions.  It also bears mentioning that the story of Christ and his parentage has provided the Christian world with a satisfactory, because sanitized and somewhat mystical, solution to the Oedipus complex.

It is particularly fortuitous that Steinberg should have been dealing with Renaissance works on this matter.  For the Renaissance itself was a quintessentially humanist age, in which classical literature was revived, translated and read.  Egyptian iconography, although not always understood, was also familiar during the Renaissance, especially in Italy.  Thus the “descriptive naturalism” to which Steinberg refers above is true, but it is not the whole story, as he points out.  For descriptive naturalism describes nature, and it is the nature of being human to which both Steinberg and Freud addressed themselves, the former in the field of art history, the latter in that of child development.  In addition, both knew that their ideas risked causing controversy – which they did – hence the “Modern Oblivion” of Steinberg’s title.  He refers there to a willful unseeing on the part of art viewers, inhibited by sexual taboos, that can block intellectual research and insight.   Fortunately for both art history and human psychology, which one would be well advised to consider as parts of a humanist whole, both Freud and Steinberg had the courage of their convictions, which impelled them to lay their discoveries before a skeptical audience.

“An Extraordinarily Suggestive Revisionist”

He was a great art critic and a great art historian, an unusual combination. As he himself noted, relatively few people were aware of the relationship of his concerns with contemporary and old master art. His “Other Criteria,” presented as a lecture in 1968, was the manifesto that marked the end of the era of Clement Greenberg’s formalism. This far reaching essay develops an exhilarating, tightly reasoned argument which leads up to his three “post-Modernists,” Jasper Johns (about whom he wrote an important early account), Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. Soon enough, of course, postmodernism became a label, which was much used, and then abandoned. And so it is worth going back to Steinberg’s essay, which retains its value even now when the terms of debate have shifted.

Steinberg’s account of Caravaggio, “Observations in the Cerasi Chapel,” published in The Art Bulletin in 1959 was one of a sequence of articles and books which develop his account of the site-specific qualities of old master art. Every time I return to Rome, I walk into this chapel, seeing the paintings in the terms of his analysis. He liked to tell the story of how, as a graduate student, he very quickly developed this analysis in response to his teacher’s challenge.  And a small early portion of the argument developed in his 1982 Mellon lectures on Michelangelo was published as essays. (The book circulates in Xeroxes, like the literature of his native Russia before the end of state socialism.) A year or two ago, the last time I saw him, he described the new research he was doing. As every reader immediately senses, he was a perfectionist. A number of other art historians have discussed the relationship of pre-modern paintings to the position of the embodied beholder. But so far as I know, no one has developed a systematic account linking the artists he discusses, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Guercino, cubism, late Picasso and Johns and Rauschenberg.

Thinking of his long time association with October, I once asked Steinberg if his book on Christ’s sexuality owed something to Foucault. No, he said a little surprised, my interest lies in logical positivism, which makes claims, which can be tested. When in 1994 I did a critique of his account of postmodernism, he wrote a response that he permitted me to publish, after editing by him. I referred in passing to his followers, which led his trusty assistant to blurt out, ‘Who the hell are they?’ But that retort was  mistaken, for very many art critics surely acknowledge his influence.  I knew him only very slightly, but his publications influence almost everything that I have written. What the situation is in art history I am not competent to judge. But since his writings offer an extraordinarily suggestive revisionist art history reaching up almost to the present, is it unreasonable to hope that soon followers will rise to the challenge?